Secretary John Laird: An argument for the Delta tunnels: Essential truths and myths about California water

CW Water 2016 Laird SliderboxSecretary John Laird argues in his keynote address at Capitol Weekly’s Water 2016 conference: “Given the truths and given the myths, it probably means that some iteration or the current iteration of the Water Fix is really the best alternative that meets them all,” he says.

The Capitol Weekly Water 2016 conference, held on April 28th, brought together a lively mix of water agency officials, interest groups, legislators, and other stakeholders for a series of panel discussions focusing largely on the California Water Fix as well as other water issues.  The keynote speech was given by Secretary John Laird.

Here’s what he had to say.

The subject of water in California and how to approach the hub of the water system in the Delta is polarizing,” began Secretary John Laird.  “Stakeholders across California have starkly different views and people tend to talk past each other, and in the water debate, everybody has their own reality and struggles with recognizing the reality of somebody else that is a stakeholder in it.”

Secretary Laird said what he would do is talk about it a little differently to seed the discussion; he would talk about five essential truths about the Delta, talk about some of the myths, and then talk about how we can move forward.

The essential truths …

The first essential truth is that California has historically made steps forward on water one step at a time or one project at a time,” he said.  “Whether it was the Hetch Hetchy project roughly a hundred years ago, or the Mokelumne Aqueduct for the East Bay after that, or the Central Valley Project in the 30s and 40s, or the State Water Project in the 60s, it was always addressed just one project at a time.”

CW Laird 2The California Water Action Plan is different from this in that it is an ‘all-of-the-above’ strategy, he said.  “We have to meet the water needs of 39 million Californians now and maybe 50 million by the middle of the next decade,” he pointed out.  “The water bond was based on the Water Action Plan so rather than like past water bonds which were a series of earmarks or carve outs, this bond was really about meeting goals of the all of the above strategy in a way that you’d get a grant if you helped in some way meet the goal, whether it’s recycling, conservation as a way of life, sustainably managing our groundwater, more regional projects than exists now, wetlands restoration as part of the water system, more storage – all those things are part of all of the above.”

The second truth is that almost everywhere in California, cities exceeded the ability to meet their water needs from their local streams or groundwater early on, and imported water is what has made the difference for everybody doing that, and so a majority of the state relies on the Delta or its tributaries,” he said.  “I think it’s little understood that the San Francisco Bay almost totally relies on imported water from the Delta or a tributary.  Except for a few coastal areas, anywhere that you are, whether it’s the peninsula, Santa Clara, San Francisco and Hetch Hetchy, whether it’s the East Bay on the Mokelumne, whether it’s Southern Alameda County or the Silicon Valley or some places in the North Bay from the Delta through the State Water Project, they all rely on that.  If you look at any Bay Area water budget, they do what they can with the local projects, and then the imported water makes the budget.”

The Santa Clara Valley Water District, through a very far-sighted program in the 50s and 60s after major subsidence and overdrafting of their groundwater, built reservoirs, did percolation ponds, and made sure that water was captured in drains into those ponds into the existing distribution system, so they had a circular system that provides for 45% of the water to the Silicon Valley,” he said.  “Another 10 or 15% comes from Hetch Hetchy, and 40% from the Delta.  When there was a break in the pipe from San Luis, it was covered by the Mercury News a few months ago, and they thought that if it went on for any longer period of time, they would have a massive water outage in parts of the Silicon Valley.  That is part of the equation.”

The third truth is that after the State Water Project was built and in conjunction with deliveries from the Central Valley Project, water exported from the Delta in the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s was at an unsustainable level, and we will never return to those levels,” said Secretary Laird.  “I think that’s a reality coming the other way that has to be recognized really clearly.  People are apprehensive about any project being done in the Delta, that somehow it’s going to lead to major additional exports or return to the levels of the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s, unless we have an El Nino year every year and have lots of extra storms and extra flows where you could actually capture it after the storms in the flows; except for those circumstances, even with a Delta water project with the Water Fix, it’s the same amount of water being exported in a dry year or normal year.  That is not increasing the exports, and it will never go back to where it was in those decades.”

The fourth truth is that the whole Delta ecosystem is incredibly stressed,” said Secretary Laird.  “I did a bill when I was in the legislature in the middle of the last decade, that basically had the Department of Resources name any potential disasters in the Delta, and what it would mean for the water system.  They looked at climate change, they looked at levee failure, they looked at floods, they looked at drought, they looked at seismic, they looked at it all and there were big problems within any of those stressors on the Delta.”

It’s also really true that the species in the Delta are stressed, and any solution has to address the health of the ecosystem and the species, it’s something that has to be included and has to be paid attention to in anything that is done on a Delta project or an alternative.  I think this administration and everybody should take totally seriously the coequal goals that were enacted by the legislature in 2009 of ecosystem health and water reliability.”

At an early hearing in front of the legislature, I referred to the dual goals and said that every stakeholder is firmly committed to at least one of them,” he said.  “When we talk about conversations or we talk about compromise, it is really realizing that we have a statutory mandate but we really have an ethical mandate to deal with both ecosystem health and reliability.  I think that one of the subtexts of these truths if that in everybody relying on the imported water, it’s like they can’t step back from that. …  So you have to figure out a way to make it reliable in conjunction with improving ecosystem health.”

The fifth truth is really doing nothing is not an option, and yet that’s where we’re going to head if there’s gridlock and people can’t figure out a way to get to some commonality to deal with those dual goals,” he said.  “The trouble is that in doing something, you have to address each of those truths.  You have to respect the fact that millions and millions of people rely on that water.  You have to respect the fact that it’s never going to go back to an unsustainable level.  You have to respect the fact that Delta is stressed and there needs to be things done for ecosystem health.  And you have to recognize that it has to be in conjunction with an all of the above strategy all across the state making sure that we do everything in terms of water sustainability in California.”

Doing nothing is also not an option because of climate change, Secretary Laird said, referencing a Stanford study last year that found that some of the warmest periods of time have occurred recently. “The study basically said that we’re moving from one climate in California to a warmer and drier climate in California, and yet all our infrastructure and the assumptions underlying that infrastructure were based on a previous climate that we are not experiencing right now in California, and might not for the foreseeable future.  And I see it.”

In the 1980s as a mayor and a councilmember of a city that had its own water system and served twice as large a number of customers as the city itself, we had 9 different water sources, and they were almost all surface water.  What’s changed in just the 30 years since I was the water wonk at the city level is that streams that flowed in Santa Cruz County until May or June have now been flowing only to February and maybe into Marc.  It cuts off three months of what was water supply, and the one reservoir which was our backup has now moved to being the central source of supply.  That is almost a direct result of changes in the climate that have happened just during the time I’ve been involved in public policy or public life.  We can’t run away from that.  The impacts on the Delta are very real that way, and very real over time.”

The myths …

Secretary Laird then turned to the myths, or the ‘edgy’ part, as he put it.

One myth is that all the water pumped from the Delta or its tributaries goes to Southern California cities and the San Joaquin Valley farmers,” he said.  “It also supplies the entire San Francisco Bay Area and a few of the coastal areas.  When I was at an editorial board at one of the San Francisco papers, they said this about Hollywood lawns, and I said only if Hollywood lawns includes Cupertino, Gilroy, Livermore, San Ramon, Fremont, and other places because they really depend on it.”

Secretary Laird pointed out that Zone 7, which serves the Amador and Livermore valleys and where his mother is a water customer, serves water to 245,000 people, and 83% of the water comes from the Delta through the state project; the Alameda County Water District serves 344,00 people and they get 40% of their water from the Delta and 20% from Hetch Hetchy.  “So there is this dependence even there, and it tends to be, when I go back to my flip comment about the dual goals, people want to believe in the goal of ecosystem health, but it’s those people in the Bay Area that depend on the goal of water reliability to make sure that they are there.”

Myth two is that we can do without the Delta deliveries,” he said.  “We can’t just do more water projects that are decentralized and that will get us there.  The district that is Fran Pavley’s home water district, Las Virgenes which is Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, and parts of unincorporated county, they have no local sources – no streams, no groundwater; they are 75,000 people, and the Delta is the only supply of potable water there.  If you look at the Santa Clara district, they have really been in the forefront of many different alternatives; I was at a water recycling plant dedication in the region, but it would take 111 water recycling plants just to replace one fifth of what they get from the Delta.  So saying, ‘just do these other things and it will relieve reliance on the Delta’ is just not a realistic alternative.”

The trouble is that we’re going to 50 million people in the middle of this century in California, so how do we accommodate that.  To Southern California’s credit, south of the Tehachapis, they’ve grown by between 4 and 5 million people in the last generation on the same or less water, so they have gotten more efficient, but they’ve used that efficiency to accommodate the growth, and it gives them less of a margin for conservation in tight times because of how they’ve been more efficient and they’ve stressed it.”

The third myth is that the Delta isn’t at a risk of some disaster or some disastrous consequence – it genuinely is,” he said.  “The droughts and floods increase the risk of levee failure; rising seas and what the effect of that is over time is going to be a stressor on the Delta.  There was a meeting in the Delta that was attended by a member of my staff where somebody berated him about the falseness of the fact that there might be an earthquake in the region that might be significant, and then an earthquake rumbled through the meeting while they were having that discussion.  It might not have been a big one, but as somebody that happened to have the misfortune of being a leader at the time a 7.1 struck that took 60% of the square footage of our core downtown away, I can just tell you, it’s never a matter of if this will happen; it’s a matter of when and how, and unintended and being ready for it.”

Myth number four is that proponents of the Water Fix have not looked at alternatives, Secretary Laird said.  “People complain about the fact that there were 37,000 pages in the EIR for the Delta project while at the same time saying there weren’t alternatives that were vetted.  The reason there were 37,000 pages is that most reasonable alternatives were vetted in some manner. … There was an alternative of through Delta, alternative of dual conveyance, alternative of isolated conveyances, alternatives of different sizes of conveyance, alternatives of different locations of conveyance, lined canals, unlined canals, various capacities, tunnels if not canals – it’s there.  And everybody always has one alternative that they think isn’t studied; when I wrote one particular op-ed, somebody responded saying you just need to go around this end to the Delta, completely ignoring the fact that’s the heart of the smelt habitat and that doing that would be incredibly challenging with what is trying to be done in restoration of the ecosystem.”

The fifth myth which is in different forms or ways is that if we build new infrastructure, it means that so much water will be taken from the Delta that it will really increase the exports and make the Delta much more salty, he said.  “I think it goes back to the fact that under the existing biological opinions and the biological opinions that are consistent with what would be the operation of any facility, it means that you’re going to take the same amount of water in dry or normal times.  One of the challenges is that the existing system doesn’t allow us to reach out and take water in the heaviest of flows when all other biological needs and water supply are met, for storage in dry years.  That is a significant piece about doing the project, and even if you were to do two forebays to try and keep the fish at bay from the pumps, it doesn’t set up a system where you can reach out and grab the water in an environmentally correct way in the heaviest of flows to be able to store for the drier times.

The State Water Quality Control Board is working on their plan for water quality in the Delta,” added Secretary Laird.  “It will obviously have to be taken into account in anything that is done with any alternative or any project and will provide some guidance on the best way to do that.”

Another myth is that the drought is over,” he said.  “That myth is a little bit crazymaking to me because actually in the so called El Nino year, if you are south of Fresno, you did not experience a significantly wet year in California.  And if you look at storage, yes we’re nearing normal levels in Oroville and in Shasta, but we’re at 50% in San Luis, after a supposed wet year, it is going to take a number of years to restore just what was taken out for groundwater or to deal with the surface water.  My biggest fear was that El Nino was an aberration in what is a longer dry streak that we could conceivably go back to next year.  …  It is a reason that we have to take this all seriously, and for certain people, the groundwater was used as really their bank account to cover themselves for a part of the reductions due to the drier years, but by the time the groundwater management law is fully implemented, those basins will have to be sustainable, they will not exist as backup in the same way.  We will have to be somewhat sustainable and accustomed to the sustainability in the other water sources by the time that happens, and that is a challenge.

The native runs of salmon are a significant concern,” he said.  “It’s one of the reasons we are removing the dams in the Klamath and have signed the agreement with Oregon and the Department of the Interior to do that.  And it’s one of the reasons that I think some groups have modified their position on water storage because they recognize that some storage might for temperature or for flows at the right time, related to salmon runs.”

Moving forward …

Trying to figure out how to be sustainable over time is a reason why the all of the above strategy has to work, whether it’s more storage for the wet years, more recharge for underground, doing recycling where it hasn’t been done before – all those things have to be a piece of the solution,” he said.  “I did a whole series of water conservation bills when I was in the legislature, and one of them said we wouldn’t give out grants to Prop 84 for water development or water planning unless best practices for conservation were in place already, because we weren’t going to pay people to do things for new water unless they could demonstrate before that that they were efficiently using the water that they had.  And so it is important to fit all these pieces together.”

“I think the hard part of all this is that given the truths and given the myths, it probably means that some iteration or the current iteration of the Water Fix is really the best alternative that meets them all,” said Secretary Laird.  “You’re dealing with reverse flows in the Delta and trying to eliminate them.  You’re dealing with not having fish in the wrong place in the Delta.  You’re dealing with trying to have ecosystem restoration in the Delta.  You’re trying to deal with reliability for those that depend on the water from the Delta to make up their water budget, and that just can’t go away.  It allows, for the first time in modern times, a way to genuinely capture water for storage in the wet years that doesn’t really exist in the Delta system now, and so it is also resilient against changes that are coming from the climate.”

How do you restore the ecosystem, have water reliability, meet the dual goals in a way that is sustainable for a generation or two?,” he said.  “That is the challenge, and doing nothing would be a disaster and doing part of it would not necessarily be helpful, so in many ways, it is how do you meet all those truths and how do you meet all those goals, so I’m starting with that, and I’m ending with that.  It is the only way we’re going to get somewhere, and I think what usually happens is is that people look back and say, what were they thinking?  We run the big risk with overwhelming majority of 39 million people relying on these decisions of not answering that question correctly, and so that is what this administration is trying to do and we really look forward of just doing in a way that you can constantly make adjustments and compromises and make sure that we can take into account as many interests as possible in serving these truths.”

I appreciate the chance to be here and talk to you, I’ll look forward to working with all of you and talking with all of you as we try to move through all these issues,” concluded Secretary Laird.  “Thank you for having me here today.”

Restore the Delta responds …

More from Capitol Weekly’s Water 2016 conference …

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